HOUSTON -- On the field, the Texans would be a better football team with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.
It’s not that simple with Kaepernick, given the controversy surrounding him, and that’s why the polarizing quarterback is still without a team as the NFL enters Week 10 of the season.
As Texans coach Bill O'Brien often says, the only thing that matters in the NFL is winning. If the Texans want to have a chance to turn their 3-5 season around, signing Kaepernick as their backup quarterback with the chance to take over for Tom Savage would be a step in the right direction.
From a football standpoint, the move just makes too much sense.
After rookie sensation Deshaun Watson tore the ACL in his right knee last week during practice, the Texans signed T.J. Yates and Matt McGloin to back up Savage. On Tuesday, the Texans released McGloin and signed quarterback Josh Johnson. Neither of their new quarterbacks allow the Texans to run the offense that was so successful under Watson, although there is no available quarterback who could come close to replicating what the dynamic rookie did in his first seven NFL games.
With Watson under center, the Texans had a quarterback who could scramble and escape pressure, something that was crucial considering the struggles of the Texans' offensive line this season. But unlike Savage, Yates or Johnson, Kaepernick has the mobility that helped Watson, and the Texans, succeed.
O'Brien on Monday did not deny that Kaepernick would help the Texans, saying the veteran is "a good football player," while noting he “hasn't played football in a while.” That is true, but neither have Yates or Johnson.
Johnson has not thrown a pass in the regular season since Dec. 11, 2011. Yates played one snap in 2016 for the Miami Dolphins but did not attempt a pass. In his third stint in Houston, Yates is familiar with the Texans’ system, but neither he nor Johnson will be a difference-maker for a Texans team that had playoff aspirations before Watson's injury.
In his first full game as the starting quarterback this season, Savage struggled in Sunday's 20-14 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, who entered the matchup with the 31st-ranked passing defense. Although Savage led the Texans on one touchdown drive in the fourth quarter and had the Texans at fourth-and-goal from the Colts' 7-yard line on the final play of the game, Houston’s offense was not good enough and didn’t score a point until there were 6 minutes, 11 seconds to go in the contest. After the game, Savage said he “played like crap.” Through three quarters, Savage was 8-of-26 for 81 yards, and the creativity that was evident in the playcalling with Watson was gone with the more limited Savage.
Savage struggled throwing the ball downfield on Sunday, going 3-of-14 for 79 yards and a touchdown on passes of 15 or more yards downfield. According to ESPN & Information data, he started the game 0-of-7 on such attempts. His 11 deep incompletions are the most by a Texans quarterback in a game in the past 10 seasons.
Savage is 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season. Watson completed 41.4 percent of those throws.
The three Texans quarterbacks on the active roster -- Savage, Yates and Johnson -- have combined to start 16 career games, going 310-of-553 (56.1 percent) for 3,445 passing yards, with 12 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Kaepernick played in 12 games for the San Francisco 49ers last season, completing 59.2 percent of his passes for 2,241 yards, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also ran for 468 yards on 69 carries, an average of 6.8 yards per carry, with two touchdowns. By comparison, through seven games, Watson ran for 269 yards on 36 carries (7.5 yards per attempt), with two touchdowns.
While Kaepernick has been brought up as an option for several teams needing quarterbacks dating back to the start of the offseason, unlike a lot of those teams, he would be a good fit on the field for the Texans. Early in his career under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Kaepernick thrived in the read-option system that put him in a position to succeed mostly with his legs. His mobility was the key to the 49ers’ success under Harbaugh, highlighted by a trip to Super Bowl XLVII. Kaepernick’s 59.8 career completion percentage is below average, but he makes up for it with his mobility, something that cannot be said for the Texans’ current quarterbacks.
Obviously, there are a lot of factors that go into the decision to sign Kaepernick. Last month, he filed a grievance against the league that claims the NFL and its owners "have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick's leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States."
Kaepernick's protests began before a preseason game in 2016, when he did not stand during the national anthem, which has led other NFL players to follow in protest of racial inequality and police brutality.
The final call on signing Kaepernick would likely go through Texans owner Bob McNair. On Monday, O’Brien was asked whether the organization would allow Kaepernick to be signed if the coach wanted the signal-caller. O’Brien deflected the question, instead saying he has known Kaepernick for a long time.
In August, when O’Brien was asked for his thoughts on players taking a knee or otherwise protesting during the national anthem, he said, “Our organization believes strongly in the national anthem and standing for the national anthem.” Although McNair has never publicly commented on his desire for players to stand during the anthem, the organization’s policy likely comes from him.
Before the Texans’ Week 8 game in Seattle, ESPN The Magazine reported that McNair commented during an October owners meeting that "we can't have the inmates running the prison" in reference to ongoing player demonstrations during the anthem.
Teams might be leery of the distraction Kaepernick would bring with him, but what’s one more distraction for a Texans team that has been through one after another this season?
Three days after returning home from their three-week training camp in West Virginia, the Texans left again and were away from Houston for a week while they watched their city get pummeled by Hurricane Harvey. In the emotional first game after the hurricane, the Texans got off to a slow start and Savage was benched at halftime of their season-opening defeat.
In Week 5, defensive end J.J. Watt (broken leg) and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle) were injured on the same defensive series and ruled out for the rest of the season.
Then McNair's controversial comments were revealed three weeks later. McNair's comments angered Texans players, and left tackle Duane Brown called them “disgusting.” Three days later, the Texans traded Brown to the Seahawks.
Then last week, Watson, who was having a historic rookie season, tore his ACL during practice.
O’Brien clearly has done a good job of keeping his team going through these distractions. After being named the starting quarterback last week, Savage praised O’Brien for the way he has communicated with the team and helped it get through such a tumultuous season.
“He didn’t act like none of this stuff was going on,” Savage said. “I think it would be easy to just kind of [say], ‘Hey, we got practice at 9 a.m., we’ll see you out there.’ He communicated with us. He’s one of the guys, and he truly is a players’ coach.”
Signing Kaepernick would be a low-risk move from a football standpoint that would come with a lot of attention off the field. If he struggles after a few weeks of practice or in a game, the Texans could easily part ways with him, knowing that he wasn’t good enough to help the team this season. They would need him for only this season, with the hope that Watson will be healthy for the start of the 2018 season.
And if Kaepernick should win? Well, that’s all that matters, right?